Civil Debate about Bears Ears National Monument
I recently had this exchange with Ben Schneider, a former teacher and current author and publisher of climbing guidebooks.
SHAWN MITCHELL: Barack Obama unilaterally land-grabbed millions of acres of public lands at the end of his term under a strange law originally intended to preserve historic artifacts. Trump unilaterally whacked big chunks off of Obama’s grab.
Suddenly, America is restored to the land situation that existed in 2015. The horror.
All hell breaks loose. Trump hates wilderness!!! Trump wants to destroy national parks and monuments!!!
There is a way to preserve wilderness and open lands. All those beautiful acres are still out there. No golf courses or movie theaters or uranium mines erected or dug or drilled yet. But, presidential seizure under the antiquated Antiquities Act, especially against the wishes of the people who live there, is not the way a free society does it.
What Obama did by whim really can’t be the apocalypse when Trump later undoes half the whim. Right?
BEN SCHNEIDER: Obama’s designation here was far from a whim. Local republican lawmakers had tried for years to pass a federal bill protecting part of Bears Ears and also opening up large parts of it to mining development, oil & gas extraction, etc. it also would have permanently banned future antiquities act designations in a handful of Utah counties permanently. Those Utah lawmakers, Chaffetz and Bishop, failed to move that bill past committee. No democrats supported it but, but not all republicans supported it either. Chaffetz and Bishop couldn’t get it together, and alienated a coalition of 5 tribal nations with cultural claims to the area (who eventually walked away when they felt compromise was impossible). Their bill died. Meanwhile, because of the attention these lawmakers brought to the area, looting skyrocketed. There were 6 incidents of confirmed looting of Bears Ears native burial grounds in 2016 alone. At least 24 occurred in the five years previous. Can you imagine how many more actually occurred? Meanwhile the BLM did not increase law enforcement activity in the Bears Ears area.
So in summary the Utah lawmakers whose failed bill drew attention to the cultural richness of the area actually ended up in all likelihood increasing incidents of cultural looting AND the existing federal agency charged with protecting the area failed to respond. So what did Obama do, he used the Antiquities Act for exactly what it was meant for- to protect cultural resources from destruction. Local lawmakers were given a chance and they only made things worse.
Furthermore, I don’t know what you mean about the locals not supporting the designation. The five tribes with documented cultural claims to the area have long supported increased protections, and have a long record of lobbying and advocating for said protections. Frankly, given the generations of genocide (I use that word intentionally) the American government perpetrated against indigenous peoples, Obama’s rational designation of Bears Ears Natl. Monument is a drop in the proverbial bucket when it comes to making amends for the atrocities our forefathers committed against native peoples. And yeah, I give them a little more weight than some white locals who want to use the area for ATV fun or than I give to corporations who want to make a quick buck while they temporarily boost the local economy in a paltry way.
SHAWN: One question on the merits, the federal land managers you mention are, of course, part of the Department of the Interior. If this was about protecting antiquities, wouldn’t the reasonable course have been for Obama to order Secretary Salazar or Jewell to order the agency to do its job?
BEN: That’s a valid question Shawn. I’ve no idea what the answer to that is. But listen, I understand the argument I’m reading here about Federal overreach etc. I think there is probably some validity to that complaint. I guess at the end of the day I’m just not swayed by it, primarily because of the desire of Native Americans with cultural claims to Bears Ears to preserve the area. Historically, this country committed cultural genocide against the native inhabitants as we sought to expand and settle. We exterminated their cultures and peoples. American has never atoned for this, and we have never offered any significant reparations. Today most Native American populations are impoverished and struggling, which I think is directly attributable to the damage and havoc we created in their populations historically and never sought to repair. America has already benefited in significant, immeasurable and incalculable ways from the expansion of our geography that involved the theft of Native American lands and the exile of the native populations. Do we really need to continue to squeeze that lemon? Isn’t it time to start respecting the few indigenous voices left in this country? America has a tremendous debt here, and preserving and protecting Bears Ears in the ways the native populations desire is I think a small way to begin repaying that debt.
SHAWN: You make a moving argument, Ben. But I don’t know if addressing wrongs to Indians is a legal purpose of the Antiquities Act. Nor should the scope of atonement be committed to the president’s sole discretion.
BEN: Fair point about the purposes of the Antiquities Act.